Why Ann Arborites Under 50 Won’t Vote on Tuesday

If you’re older and white, congratulations!  Chances are you’ve already got Tuesday, August 8th’s “secret election” in your calendar.  The problem is the rest of you don’t, and we’re here to make you feel guilty!  

Back up. There’s an election this Tuesday?

Yes.  If you live anywhere in the city outside of Ward 2, there is a Democratic primary election at your regular polling place on Tuesday, August 8th.

We still want you to vote in the general election on November 8th, because a couple of seats will be contested by Independent candidates. (We’ll remind you later this fall!) But the point is that in Wards 1, 3, 4, and 5, there are two very different Democrats vying to be one of your ward representatives on City Council, and whoever wins Tuesday’s primary is likely going to win the general election and will have a powerful voice in your daily life and future of Ann Arbor.  What’s worrisome is that studies show that younger, more diverse, and more progressive voters don’t show up for these local races, particularly in odd years.

 

If you read no further, here’s the deal: 1) put Tuesday, August 8th in your calendar NOW, 2) read up on the candidates (links provided at the end), 3) vote between 7am and 8pm, and 4) post a selfie with your “I Voted” sticker!

There are never lines to vote in this election because turnout in odd-year City Council primaries is frequently less than 10%. Below are the actual results from an Ann Arbor City Council primary race in a typical ward in 2015.  (We’ve removed the names because the candidates aren’t the point.)

 

Why is turnout so low?

Elections that don’t fall on the usual even-year schedule—and therefore don’t coincide with State or Congressional races—see dramatically lower turnout. Of course, low turnout is bad for democracy in general. But even more disturbing is how different the voters are in odd years and even years. Odd-year voters tend to be significantly older and less diverse. This can cause a disconnect between voters and the policies that affect them. As an example, the only non-Democrat on Ann Arbor’s City Council has been elected twice in an overwhelmingly Democratic ward, almost certainly because her seat is in the low-turnout, odd-year election cycle.

This has been noted as a root cause of strife in other communities. A Washington Post study of Ferguson, MO elections found that African-American voters were almost 3 times less likely to vote than Whites in odd-year municipal elections versus even-year national elections.

 

So why don’t we get rid of odd-year elections?

Here’s the good news: we did!  After literally decades of debate, Ann Arbor voters finally decided to eliminate odd-year council election cycles last year.  (We were supporters of the betterturnout.org advocacy group, so we’re super happy about this change.)

The bad news is that we’ve still got one more cycle to go before this takes effect, and half of all the council seats are up for grabs this year.  If history repeats itself, this means that the 10% of voters who show up on Tuesday will decide the course of the city for the next three years.  As the Ann Arbor Observer put it, “Odd-year elections gave small, passionate groups an outsize impact. This will be their last chance.”

This is exactly why it’s important to get a more representative group of voters to the polls on August 8th.

 

But I always vote in the November general election, even in odd years!  Isn’t that enough?

It’s great that you vote in November!  And you should this year too.  But the fact is that for most City Council races, the primary is effectively the decisive election because the Democratic nominee typically wins the general election.

 

OK, so the primary is the actual “race.”  But it’s just two Democrats competing against each other.  So does the primary really matter after all, since a Democrat is going to win anyway?

We hear this question a lot!  When candidates have “D”s next to their names, it is usually a good indicator of their values on state and national issues. But sometimes it has nothing to do with how they vote on important city issues.  The pairs of Democrats squaring off in Tuesday’s primary have very different views on the future of the city and how it should be run.

 

How so?

Your city representatives create policies that affect residents every day: how roads get paved, how drinking water is monitored, how police do their jobs, whether new residents have reasonable housing choices, whether we have safe places to walk and bicycle, whether we support environmentally-friendly practices—the list goes on.  While some Democrats may say they favor progressive causes, their voting records show otherwise. As recent examples, some Democrats currently on City Council have consistently voted against accepting federal money for upgrading our AMTRAK station, voted against making pedestrian infrastructure improvements, and even voted against merely accepting an affordable housing needs report, stating that it’s bad for government to “meddle in the free market.” This conservative voting bloc isn’t currently big enough to cause damage to progressive priorities, but everything could change in Tuesday’s election.

 

OK, I’m on board.  What should I do?

Encourage your progressive friends and neighbors to vote!  We are all frustrated about our state and federal leadership.  If we can get just 5% of the progressives who vote in presidential elections but usually skip odd-year elections to show up at the polls on Tuesday, we can ensure a progressive landslide and have a real impact in our own community. When turnout is this low, the difference between winning and losing has come down to as few as 5 or 10 votes. Again, representatives elected in Tuesday’s primary will likely win the November general election and go on to serve 3-year terms. This can change the entire composition of Ann Arbor’s City Council.

 

If you want to know our personal opinion, we strongly agree with the opinions expressed by Mayor Taylor and the MGoBlog writers.  The links are below.  There is also excellent non-partisan information at annarborvotes.org and vote411.org, as well as an insightful article by the Observer here: http://annarborobserver.com/articles/the_end_of_independents_full_article.html

 

MGoBlog endorsements: http://mgoblog.com/content/ann-arbor-city-council-endorsements-part-i

Mayor Taylor’s endorsements: http://hosted-p0.vresp.com/1381223/237d1100db/ARCHIVE

 

If you don’t want to click around, here’s a handy map with a summary of the endorsements above.

 

 

Thanks for reading, and see you at the polls!

Slogging Through the Campaign Rhetoric

I have often lamented the fact that so much in Ann Arbor politics is decided in low-turnout, August primary elections. What that means is that very small but loud interest groups can dominate the conversation and influence politicians who have to pander to them in order to get elected. The upcoming August 5 election may see a higher turnout because there is a competitive race for mayor.City Hall

All of the candidates are either implicitly or explicitly distancing themselves from the current mayor, John Hieftje and that’s not a good thing. John Hieftje was elected because he presented a vision and he won re-election six times because he was consistent in promoting that vision. The criticism of his policies comes from those small interest groups who have been successful in getting their candidates elected to council precisely because of the August primary voter anemia.

It’s time to send those I-hate-everything-new naysayers a message about how backward they really are, but to do so requires slogging through some of the mayoral campaign rhetoric. There have been a number of mayoral forums already and it’s not too hard to distinguish who the candidates are and what they’re all about.

Let me make things easy for you and point out that you can eliminate 3rd Ward Councilmember Steve Kunselman right off the bat.  Kunselman says his main achievement on council has been to restrict the Downtown Development Authority and it’s a good example of his form-over-substance politics. The DDA is a great punching bag for a bully like Kunselman because it can’t fight back. Kunselman can waste countless hours harping on the power of the DDA and it is a very tidy way to divert attention from the fact that as a council representative he has done nothing for his constituents. I am a member of the DDA board, so I have a bias here, but I also have firsthand knowledge of whether Kunselman has actually done anything that matters.

His insistence on pitting the downtown against the “neighborhoods” has resulted in the following changes to the DDA:  The DDA’s total income is now capped – at a figure that it will not reach for many years to come, so it has not put one cent back into the city’s coffers. Moreover, capping the DDA’s money means that eventually money that could be spent in the city of Ann Arbor will go elsewhere. He and his followers on council – Lumm, Eaton, Kaliasapathy, and Anglin – told the DDA to spend more on affordable housing, something the DDA was already doing. They also have now mandated term limits for board members, a change that makes little difference and will have exactly zero impact on anyone who is not using it as a fake campaign claim.

He champions his initiation of the old Y-lot sale, which resulted in a perpetually vacant lot sitting in one of the best locations in the city. He is proud of ending the Percent-for-Art program but what has that done for you? Not one cent of the money that could be spent on artwork that enriches our environment is being spent on anything that will make any difference to the average citizen.

But perhaps his most laughable claim is that he is a champion of the people because of his work on the Taxicab Board. No, that is not an autocorrect error. Lately, the really big problem facing Ann Arbor has been the incursion of non-city-regulated car sharing, with Uber and Lyft. Kunselman  touts his fight against Uber and Lyft as protection of public safety because the other taxi drivers are regulated by the city and therefore certified. As what? Have you ever ridden in an Ann Arbor taxi? The one with the obese, alcoholic, cigar-smoking driver in the car with no seatbelts and torn seats? I think I’ll take my chances with the free market. Again, Kunselman is only talk – form over substance.

That leaves three other candidates for mayor, all of whom are intelligent and capable.

Christopher Taylor is the kind of Renaissance man that many of us like to think is typical of Ann Arbor. He is a lawyer but is also a fine tenor and has several UM degrees. It is a pleasure to hear his articulate answers to questions and occasional literary allusions. He doesn’t beat his chest and repeat meaningless phrases like “public health, safety and welfare.” Instead, he points out that the day-to-day business of the city – fixing roads, removing snow – gets done regardless of who the mayor is. Like Hieftje, Taylor says we need to think about issues that take more planning and thought, such as climate action and transportation.

Taylor talks about his experience and judgment and I think he’s right about how important those are. He is someone who is good at analyzing problems and finding solutions, good at the kind of writing and drafting that makes for sensible legislation, and good at listening to all sides before coming to a conclusion.  Those are the kinds of qualities we want in a leader and in a person who will be the face of the city to many.

Sabra Briere has been involved in Ann Arbor politics for a long time. As the First Ward councilmember, she has built a reputation on championing historic districts and having close constituent relations. She is another person who listens to what people have to say and is not guided by ego but by commitment to public service. She does not shoot from the hip but would rather convene a task force to study a problem before coming to any conclusions. When Ward 2 Councilmembers Lumm and Petersen sought to repeal Ann Arbor’s progressive crosswalk ordinance because their moneyed constituents were miffed at having to slow their SUV’s for pedestrians, Briere was opposed to it and initiated a pedestrian task force that has been meeting and will be very useful. The mayor had to veto the council’s repeal of the crosswalk ordinance, by the way.

Becoming a champion for a particular cause has its drawbacks. Briere is beholden to the often hysterical historic preservation constituency, which has led her to some unfortunate decisions. She was not helpful in the debacle over the potential housing development just south of the Library on Fifth Avenue and that resulted in demolition of the historic homes that were there and some very ugly and mundane buildings instead of an attractive row of apartments. She also voted against the apartment building at 413 E. Huron, a building that fit squarely within the zoning regulations that Briere, along with others, had worked on and approved.

Briere, like others, talks a lot about neighborhoods but I don’t really know what that means. All Ann Arbor politicians have to talk about neighborhoods because people who live here like to pretend it’s a quaint city with lots of little quaint neighborhoods. Maybe that’s true in some places but those neighbors eventually start to fight with each other about dogs or driveways and nobody spends the weekends hoping to pal around with their neighbors anymore. When was the last time you borrowed sugar from a neighbor? I thought so.

The fourth candidate, Sally Petersen, has the least experience, having served almost one term on council. As she will quickly tell you, she has an MBA from Harvard. Her marketing experience means she knows she has to carve out a niche in the campaign and her niche is spearheading economic development. Petersen is definitely smart and capable and her heart is in the right place on this one, but she makes the mistake many business-minded people make when it comes to government. Running a city is not like running a company. All that business experience makes understanding spreadsheets and fancy marketing terms much easier but city government is a different kind of animal.

I haven’t heard any concrete suggestions for how Ann Arbor can encourage economic development. She also talks about better relations with the University of Michigan, which is an easy thing to talk about because it is impossible. Petersen has been cautious as a councilmember, often wanting to consult constituents before making a decision. Sometimes leadership means taking a stand and educating your constituents and she may be working on that with her emphasis on economic development but it’s hard to get a grip on the elements of her plan.

BallotLuckily, there have been numerous opportunities to hear the candidates’ positions. Check out www.annarborchronicle.com for more information than you could possibly digest. Most important, if you think you may be away on August 5, vote absentee. You can either request a ballot or just go over to City Hall and fill out your absentee ballot right now.

Residency Requirement Revealed

Elections are, by their very nature, contentious and this summer’s primary election in the 3rd Ward has become contentious before it even gets off the ground. That is because the City Clerk has told one of the announced Democratic Party candidates that he is not eligible to be on the ballot.

The issue is residency in the ward and whether the candidate, Bob Dascola, has lived in the ward and been registered to vote there for the amount of time required by the City Charter:

Eligibility for City Office – General Qualifications

SECTION 12.2. Except as otherwise provided in this charter, a person is eligible to hold a City office if the person has been a registered elector of the City, or of territory annexed to the City or both, and, in the case of a Council Member, a resident of the ward from which elected, for at least one year immediately preceding election or appointment. This requirement may be waived as to appointive officers by resolution concurred in by not less than seven members of the Council.

Dascola grew up in Ann Arbor and works in the city as a barber, but for many years has lived in Grass Lake and listed his residence on an official city document as Grass Lake as late as last December. He registered to vote in the 3rd Ward in January of this year. I have known Bob Dascola for many years and find him solid and well-intentioned. Why would he declare an invalid candidacy, especially when there is already another announced Democratic Party candidate, Julie Grand?  It’s because he is being guided by Tom Wieder, an attorney and township resident who has an axe to grind against Grand and other city Democratic Party members.

Wieder has filed suit on behalf of Dascola in Federal Court in Detroit. He claims the City Charter eligibility provision is unconstitutional. He is wrong, and is wasting a lot of other people’s time and energy spinning his wheels but here is why he thinks he’s right:Constitution

In 1971 and 1972, candidates from the Human Rights Party challenged the City Charter’s eligibility requirement and won. The Federal Court said the Charter violated the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The HRP had argued that moving from place to place is a fundamental right, that poor people are more likely to move around a lot, and that the residency requirement has a disproportionate impact on people who change residences. Wieder thinks those court orders ought to be enforced.

But residency requirements for all kinds of elected offices are very common. For many state, federal , and local lawmakers, it hasn’t seemed like a good idea to allow someone who may be out of touch with constituents to represent them. So, there have been many court challenges and decisions about residency requirements and after the 1970’s, the courts went in the opposite direction from those 1971 and ’72 Detroit Federal Court rulings.

To understand how courts could look at the same situation and come up with different opinions, you need to understand how a court weighs certain issues and then decides them. It’s called “scrutiny” and not all constitutional issues are scrutinized evenly. Courts limit their highest level of scrutiny to fundamental rights and protected classes of people. For example, a First Amendment case involving political speech will warrant high scrutiny because that’s a fundamental right. What that means is that the courts will be extremely suspicious of any law that has an impact on political speech, so the government will have to show a “compelling interest” to enforce the law. When you see the term “compelling interest,” think “impossible to uphold.”  Similarly, if the law adversely affects certain protected groups of people – according to race or (now) sexual orientation, for example – a compelling interest is the standard.

When a law does not have an impact on a protected group or fundamental right, the courts can use a lower level of scrutiny and thus decide according to a less-rigorous standard. Such a law only has to be justified by a “rational basis” instead of a “compelling interest.” That’s a low bar. Almost any logical reason will convince a court that the legislature or council has acted correctly.

Modern courts have looked at residency requirements under the “rational basis” standard and that’s a U-turn from how those 1970s Ann Arbor cases were decided. A local judge, Tim Connors, applied the modern theory to uphold Ann Arbor’s residency requirement the last time Wieder challenged it. Then, he represented a Republican, Scott Wojack, who also did not meet the Charter’s terms. That was in 2002. The most recent Michigan decision was just last June, when the Court of Appeals upheld Detroit’s residency law and Mike Duggan had to run as a write-in candidate. That court went through a detailed history of residency-law-jurisprudence. Here are some excerpts (I have done some liberal editing):

We find that the charter provision will have a minor effect, if any, on intrastate travel, as it applies only to individuals who wish to run for elected office as described in charter § 2-105(A)(13). It does not prohibit anyone from moving into or out of Detroit, and was not designed to discourage intrastate travel. Rather, according to the charter’s commentary to § 2-101, it was meant to “make it more likely that elected officials will be intimately familiar with the unique issues impacting their communities.” We also consider that “the benefit denied is not itself a fundamental right (such as voting) nor a basic necessity of life (such as welfare benefits for the poor)….”  The charter provision thus does not “penalize” the exercise of the right to travel, it merely places an insignificant impediment to running for office once moving into the city. The charter provision does not sufficiently infringe upon the right to travel such that strict scrutiny must be applied.

Accordingly, the compelling-state-interest test is inappropriate here. See In re Contest of November 8, 2011 General Election, 210 N.J. at 53, 40 A.3d 684 (“Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Bullock, there has been general consensus that strict scrutiny should not apply to requirements that candidates live in a district or municipality for a particular duration.”).

We now turn to the governmental interests asserted in support. [T]he significant governmental interests include:

(1) the interest in exposing candidates to the scrutiny of the electorate, so voters may make informed choices; (2) the interest in protecting the community from outsiders who are interested only in their own selfish ends and not seriously committed to the community; and (3) the interest in having officeholders who are familiar with the problems, interests, and feelings of the community.

These justifications — which were in part cited by the city in establishing the provision — support the charter’s requirement that candidates must be registered voters for one year when filing for office. We further observe that the people of Detroit recently considered the durational residency requirement when adopting the latest version of the charter in the November 2011 election and chose to include it. The interests of the people in adopting the charter must be balanced with the interest of voters to have their choice of candidates. [T]here is no constitutional right to vote for an individual who did not meet the eligibility requirements to have their name placed on the ballot. Indeed, voters have the right to expect that the candidates appearing on ballots have met the requirements set by the citizens in the charter.

The substantial interest of the city in prescribing candidate eligibility requirements also weighs in favor of the charter provision. The United States Supreme Court indicated that the interests of the state of Texas in a durational residency requirement for elected officials were sufficient to warrant the “de minimis” interference with the individual’s interests in candidacy. Clements v. Fashing, 457 U.S. 957, 971-972, 102 S.Ct. 2836, 73 L.Ed.2d 508 (1982) (plurality opinion).

Note that the court mentioned that Detroit’s durational residency requirement was subject to a vote by the people. The same is true for Ann Arbor’s Charter requirement. After Wieder lost the Wojack case in 2002, he convinced the city council to put the residency requirement to a vote, which it did. In the November 2003 election, citizens voted to keep the one-year residency provision. The following is a copy of the Ann Arbor News article from the Ann Arbor District Library database (I didn’t create a link because you need an AADL login to get to it):

Voters retain rule for council

Ann Arbor News (MI) – Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Readability: >12 grade level (Lexile: 1340L)
Author: TOM GANTERT

Ann Arbor voters on Tuesday rejected a ballot proposal that would have eased residency rules to run for City Council, as well as those for city appointees and volunteers on commissions.

Proposal A was defeated by 11,369 votes, or 57 percent, to 8,540 votes, according to unofficial results.

The proposal would have eliminated the requirement that City Council candidates live in the ward they want to represent for at least one year before being elected. Candidates would have had to live in the their wards on the date they are elected or appointed.

“It’s absolutely clear to me that voters in Ann Arbor believe that candidates should be residents of the ward for at least a year before they run for office,” said Council Member Mike Reid, R-2nd Ward.

Attorney Thomas Weider has said the ballot would have cleaned up the city charter language by imposing residency requirements for City Council and mayoral candidates.

Weider said requirements now in the charter have been struck down by federal court opinions. The city, however, says the opinions are unpublished and have been overturned by appellate courts.

Proposal A was overshadowed by the greenbelt millage Proposal B. The original signs made in August for the Friends of Ann Arbor Area Open Space supporting Proposal B just said “Yes.”

The group changed its signs to “Yes on B” after they learned there were two proposals on the ballot.

Tom Gantert can be reached at tgantert@annarbornews.com or (734) 994-6701.

Page: B1
Record Number: 0414757674
Copyright, 2003, The Ann Arbor News. All Rights Reserved.

So, the summary is:  1) A Federal court finds the Charter provision unconstitutional in 1972; 2) subsequent court rulings find no constitutional problem with durational residency requirements for elected officials; 3) Wieder sues to stop Ann Arbor from enforcing its law and loses; 4) Ann Arbor voters decide to keep the residency requirement.

Now, in 2014, Wieder continues to contend that a court order is a court order and the orders from the 1970s, though no longer good law, meant the Charter provision was essentially erased from existence. That is wrong, too, though. Laws are enacted by legislative bodies and don’t go away unless the process is legislative. This issue has come up before.

In 1918, Congress enacted a minimum wage law for Washington, D.C. In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court held that minimum wage laws were unconstitutional. Later, in 1937, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed itself and said minimum wage laws were constitutional. The question arose, in a 1952 D.C. Court of Appeals case, as to whether a woman who was denied a minimum wage could sue under the original law. The court agreed with an opinion by the U.S. Attorney General, who said, “The decisions are practically in accord in holding that the courts have no power to repeal or abolish a statute, and that notwithstanding a decision holding it unconstitutional a statute continues to remain on the statute books; and that if a statute be declared unconstitutional and the decision so declaring it be subsequently overruled the statute will then be held valid from the date it became effective.”

In other words, a law that is found unconstitutional lies dormant and can be “revived” if later court decisions say that type of law is not constitutionally flawed. This is especially true when, in the case of Detroit and Ann Arbor, the law is put to a vote and the citizens themselves revive it.

There doesn’t seem to be a good legal reason for the new lawsuit against the city. The real reason for it might be best explained by some recent research that looks at another motive – spite.

Update: Judge Zatkoff disagreed with my assessment (but most importantly, that of the city attorney) and ordered that Ann Arbor’s residency requirement is non-existent and Bob Dascola’s name must be on the August primary ballot.

 

Think Intangibly

When my doctor husband first mentioned the trendy phrase “evidence-based medicine,” I asked, “What was it before – guess-based medicine?” It’s popular in this age of Big Data (information from everywhere about everyone) to call almost anything evidence-based, which sounds pretty scientific. Scientific is good, isn’t it?

We are so used to reading charts and statistics that we think all subjects can be quantified. It’s science! Will your child be successful in school? Test scores will tell you, right? Can you find true love? Match.com and e-Harmony have a formula. Should government provide mass transit to people who either don’t own cars or prefer to use them sparingly? Let’s crunch the numbers and see.

In the old Ann Arbor News, I always enjoyed how the football writers would evaluate wins and losses and then add up the “intangibles” in predicting the outcome of Michigan football games. Intangibles were things such as the coach’s dislike for the other coach, the need to win on home field, and decades of historical factoids. If you’re trying to get a bunch of teenagers to win a football game or if you’re trying to figure out public policy, those intangibles can be very important.

Last week I visited a friend who is taking some courses at MIT on Public Sector Dispute Resolution. I attended class with her and had the good fortune to meet one of the gurus in this area. Lawrence Susskind applies consensus-building techniques to issues such as urban planning and international water disputes. His blog contains a fascinating discussion of Participatory Action Research (PAR) as a counterpoint to the usual “scientific” statistical methods. Simply put, he advises social scientists to get down and dirty with specific community projects rather than relying solely on numbers and surveys that lead to incorrect generalizations about social change.

Charts and statistics are just a jumping-off point. They can’t necessarily predict future activity and they certainly can’t measure community benefit. My favorite example is the non-motorized path the city built on the north side of Washtenaw Avenue. During the public meetings about it, numerous residents came out to complain that there was no evidence that anyone would use it. Of course there was no evidence – there was no sidewalk! Now that it exists, hundreds of people walk and bike there and more people are willing to take the bus because the stops on that side of the road are accessible. The intangible is that the city made a statement in favor of non-motorized transportation, regardless of “evidence.”

In the coming weeks we will hear a lot of blather from the “we hate everything” group that now has been formed to oppose the proposed AAATA millage in May. The millage will support more efficient bus routes and less waiting time for bus riders, but expect the naysayers to drag out all kinds of statistics showing each penny each resident pays for each hubcap on each tire on each bus. Here are some of the intangibles:  1) As a relatively wealthy community, we owe it to those who aren’t so wealthy to provide reliable transportation; 2) It’s not all about “me” –you might not take the bus but someone else you depend on probably does; and 3) Improved transit provides incentives for employment and for retail opportunities.

Whether it’s the transportation millage, a new building, or crosswalk improvements, be wary of those who rely solely on statistics. It takes social conscience to figure some of these things out. Read up on all the facts and figures, but then feel the love.

Where Has All The Art Gone?

Pete Seeger died last week. Today the Toledo Public Television station was kind enough to air an American Masters program about Seeger from a few years ago. There was an interview with his son, who said his father had never aimed to commercialize folk music – he used it to build community.

Community is still something people seek, even in this age where you can watch movies and meetings and concerts and sports events on your smartphone. In the rapid evolution of new apartment buildings in Ann Arbor, developers have found that the students and others who inhabit these new buildings are more interested in communal spaces than they are in large living spaces. The first “private dorms,” Landmark and Zaragon in the South University area, have mainly 4,5, and 6-bedroom apartments with relatively large central areas within the apartments. The newer buildings, Zaragon West, Varsity, and the non-student Ann Arbor City Apartments all have smaller apartments, mostly one and two-bedrooms, with some studios, but have gone all-out with rooftop party rooms and even a “Zen Garden.”

People want to be with people in an organized way.

It’s a concept many of our public servants fail to understand. What brings people together? Big sporting events, for certain, as we know from the success of the recent Winter Classic. But hordes of people do not necessarily make a community, and sporting events can polarize rather than energize. One message from Pete Seeger is that art and music build community in a sustainable way and a way that fosters common bonds instead of emphasizing differences. That’s why it is such a mistake to forego the opportunity to promote public art.

There is plenty of art around if you are wealthy enough to own paintings and sculpture and if you were raised in a culture that made you appreciate museums and concerts. But public art is a way to bring the arts to everyone and to make everyone feel a part of it. In 1983, the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to Miami Beach with what sounded like a bizarre and even goofy idea. The result was “Surrounded Islands”:  tiny islands in the intra-coastal waterway between Miami and Miami Beach surrounded by thousands of yards of pink polyester fabric.Christo

Everyone got involved. Just placing the pink material took hundreds of volunteers. The artists had to work with government and local arts organizations to make everything work (it took a couple of years). My brother was one of the lawyers who helped import the pink polyester. My neighbors on one of the causeways that joins the beach to the mainland used their boat to help. People talked about it for years and I’m sure it was a factor that led to renewed interest in the Art Deco preservation movement on what was then a very dilapidated Miami Beach hotel strip.

As I have written about previously, Ann Arbor had an innovative, progressive Percent for Art program that used 1% of budgeted money from otherwise un-artistic capital projects to fund public artworks. But thanks to some councilmembers who think Ann Arbor should be ordinary rather than innovative, the Percent for Art program is dead. Not content to have killed it, one of those councilmembers, Jane Lumm, has now proposed that money in the public art fund – from those projects that have already been successfully built without that 1% of their budgets set aside for art – be “returned” to sewer, water, and roads funds. That would effectively eviscerate the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission, which is just what Lumm and her cohort want.

These councilmembers would rather see money spent on potholes and police, even though the road millage taxes pay for street improvements and there is so little crime that the police already spend more than 40% of their time on non-crime, “pro-active” activities. Perhaps it would be wise to pipe in a little Pete Seeger music into the Council Chambers in the hope it might instill a sense of community. Nothing else seems to work.

 

New Year’s Resolution

I’m sure you have already acted on your New Year’s resolutions such as drinking more juice, trying not to say “like,” and eating more kale. Here’s one I urge everyone to adopt and that is particularly applicable to Ann Arbor politics:  Don’t be such a know-it-all!kool-kale

For almost any subject that comes up for discussion in Ann Arbor, there are dozens of “experts” who opine in online newspapers, populate public meetings, and sign up to speak at public hearings. They especially like speaking at televised meetings such as City Council or Planning Commission because they love to hear themselves over and over again. Most people in Ann Arbor have several degrees from important academic institutions and at least one of those degrees will be relevant to the topic at hand.

Here are some examples of discussions that have been derailed by these arm-chair experts:

Fire:  This is a multi-level know-it-all issue because there is very little trustworthy data or information on which to base political action. Jim Leonard’s excellent article in the January Ann Arbor Observer points out some of the misinformation that has been floating around for years. A featherbedding national organization, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends “standards” for response time and numbers of firefighters needed. Almost no cities meet these standards since they call for (surprise!) huge numbers of firefighters to be sitting around on call.

When I was a city councilmember, during the single digits, we tried to get some data about what kinds of fires were fought in Ann Arbor so that we could intelligently negotiate with the firefighter’s union. There was no systematic way of collecting that data and we had to peruse hundreds of pages of reports about fires in trash cans and frying pans.

The lack of real information and reliable standards feeds the fear-mongers who try to sound like experts. Councilmembers Jane Lumm and Jack Eaton are especially vociferous about saying we should stop spending money on just about everything else and increase spending on “public safety,” meaning police and fire. On the other hand, Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski is relying on what actually happens in this city and is advocating fire prevention such as more education and smoke detectors.

There are real experts out there but we rarely listen to them. For years and years, Ann Arbor’s fire inspectors, the city employees who check out buildings every day, said we should ban the placement of flammable furniture on porches. But know-it-alls frequently came before the city council and whined about the great old college experience of sitting on a couch outside your ramshackle apartment and how couches don’t cause fires. Then a student was killed in a couch-related fire and the law was changed.

Cars and pedestrians:  The recent crosswalk extravaganza proved to be a festival of know-it-alls versus experts. Know-it-alls were absolutely certain that forcing drivers to stop for pedestrians was causing more accidents. There was no evidence for this, of course. One critic of almost everything, former school board trustee Kathy Griswold, even claimed that no “professional engineers” or P.E.s had ever been consulted when Ann Arbor enacted its ordinance and placed crosswalks. That is why, at a December City Council meeting, Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy, a Griswold devotee, asked a dumbfounded Cresson Slotten, P.E., Systems Planning Unit Manager, whether any professional engineers were involved in crosswalk planning. Duh.

Leaves:  Leaves are a scourge. But so are people who think they are experts on how to get rid of leaves. Ann Arbor used to have residents sweep the leaves into the street, supposedly at just the right time, and then the city would scrape them up with special equipment affixed to trucks, load them into more trucks, and haul them off to be composted. An evaluation of this process found that it was much better, both environmentally and financially, to have residents either bag the leaves and set them out for the weekly compost pickup, or mulch them into their lawns where they would enrich the grass and not hurt anybody. This bagging and mulching process has been happening for several years now, yet some residents still insist that sweeping leaves into the street is better because old people will either die or go broke if they have to bag their leaves or pay a service to do so. No deaths have yet been attributed to leaf-bagging.

High-rises:  Speaking of deaths, during the public hearing for the building at 413 E. Huron, a psychiatrist who treats patients in the building next door stated almost tearfully that people will DIE if the building goes up. I will personally keep track of how many people die as a result of 413 E. Huron and will let you know. Public hearings on new buildings are perhaps the very best place to see know-it-alls in action.

The era of the student high-rise began, again in the single digits, with the Landmark building at Forest and S. University. Residents of Burns Park, who really do have many academic degrees, turned out to protest this disaster-waiting–to-happen. Fourteen floors! At the public hearings for this building plan, “experts” said these things would happen:  There would never be sun on S. University again; no students would want to live there because they want to live in old houses; it would create a wind tunnel and elderly people would literally be blown away; the traffic would be so bad on Forest that there would be gridlock all the time. Landmark is now in its second season. It is fully leased, the traffic is no worse than it was before, sunlight still appears on S. University, and no elderly people have been blown down the street (I will keep track of this for you, too).

Am I saying that no one should ever speak at a public hearing? Absolutely not. The crosswalk ordinance public hearing was not only an example of know-it-alls, it was also an example of wonderful people who came out and spoke from the heart. A man in a wheel chair spoke of his experiences. Parents talked about trying to cross streets with their children. Advocates for cyclists and pedestrians came out to advocate, not to show off their fake factoids.

So, put down that kale smoothie and repeat after me: I will not be a know-it-all, I will not be a know-it-all, I will not be a know-it-all.

Soul-Sucking Micromanagement

Ann Arbor’s City Council is about to have its annual “retreat” where the councilmembers work with a facilitator and determine their priorities for the coming year. This year’s retreat is preceded by some internecine squabbling, mostly between the two Ward 2 councilmembers, over who has the inside scoop from moneyed Republicans about to sell a big hunk of land to the University of Michigan. The offer and selling price have already been widely reported, but it seems that Councilmember Sally Petersen learned some details first from the owners, who go to her church and are neighbors, and Councilmember Jane Lumm thinks it’s not fair (maybe because the owners are also Republicans and as a “former” Republican she should have been first in line for the information).

This leads to the question, “Are we capable of electing the right people to lead the most progressive city in Michigan and, if so, where are they?” What are the criteria for effective public servants? What constitutes leadership? Will we know it when we see it?

training

The Michigan Municipal League, headquartered right here in Ann Arbor, is an excellent resource for cities and even conducts elected official training courses. But those courses only teach what you should know – not what you should be. The Elected Official Handbook has a lot of information about the Open Meetings Act, Michigan legislation, and ethics rules, all necessary stuff. It doesn’t, however, say much about effective leadership in city government. So, I have come up with a few characteristics that I think exemplify leadership.

A leader must be devoted and dedicated to public service and should be creative about how to achieve objectives. Mayor John Hieftje is a good example. He is a dedicated environmentalist and has run for office on a platform of protecting the environment and making Ann Arbor a more sustainable community. He showed creativity in promoting the Greenbelt, a concept that most people did not know about. Creativity involves taking risks and he has been willing to do that, not only with the Greenbelt, but also in his advocacy for urban density as a factor in sustainability.

It shows absolutely no creativity to simply defer to the “will of the people” as Ward 5 Councilmember Mike Anglin often does. First of all, it is impossible to take accurate surveys concerning every issue that arises. Even with frequent town meetings, which don’t actually occur, a representative could only talk to a few people at a time. Those few are not “the people.”

A leader has to have the intellect to research and understand the issues and the ability to articulate his or her positions based on that research and understanding. On two recent occasions, Ward 3 Councilmenber Steve Kunselman has cautioned the council and his constituents not to “intellectualize” an issue. The first was a question of whether Ypsilanti Township should have a representative on the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA) Board.

It was really a simple question, but the convoluted discussion led a frustrated Ward 3 Councilmember Christopher Taylor to decry “soul-sucking micromanagement” (SSM). Ypsi Township is part of the “area” and has been paying for AAATA bus service for decades. Yet the city council initially postponed a decision on the board representation so, as Councilmembers Lumm and Anglin said, they could “hear from” their constituents about the issue. Was constituent input really necessary to make this decision? When the issue came back after the postponement, Councilmember Lumm, who had heard from one or two people who wanted some changes on two bus routes, grilled AAATA’s CEO about those two routes, as if to say, “Give my two constituents what they want or else.” That SSM, which Lumm excels at, also showed a lack of creativity and intellect. And it was completely unrelated to the Ypsi Township representation question.

The next issue was the proposed repeal of Ann Arbor’s progressive crosswalk ordinance. The state law regarding crosswalks, enacted by an automobile-centered legislature, requires a driver to yield (not necessarily stop) to a pedestrian in the driver’s part of the crosswalk. Two years ago, pedestrian advocates and advocates for the disabled were able to demonstrate that at crosswalks without lights or stop signs, a person would have to wait many minutes before a gap in traffic allowed safe crossing. The council amended the city crosswalk law to require a car to stop (not just yield) when a pedestrian was approaching the crosswalk. A year later this was amended again to require stopping when a pedestrian was at the curb, since “approaching” was considered too vague.

Drivers were angry about changing their habits, so some of them went to the two councilmember most likely to over-react to a few constituents:  Petersen and Lumm. They drafted a repeal of the ordinance, going backwards to the “yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk” language. No consideration was given to a lack of factual evidence or the fact that Councilmembers Briere and Warpehoski had already proposed establishment of a pedestrian safety task force that might develop a factual record.

Kunselman met with representatives from the Washtenaw Biking and Walking Coalition and told them not to “intellectualize” this issue. I think he probably meant “complicate,” since it would be hard for Councilmember Kunselman to over-intellectualize at all, but his language rubbed these advocates the wrong way. Instead of listening to them and the hundreds of other supporters of the existing law, Kunselman decided to propose a “compromise,” which was to repeal the waiting-at-the-curb provision but require drivers to stop rather than to yield to a pedestrian physically in the crosswalk. I think he probably meant “revision” rather than compromise, since Kunselman rarely listens to anyone long enough to change his own point of view.

The approach of the councilmembers who supported the repeal – Kunselman, Kailasapathy, Petersen, Lumm, Eaton, and Anglin – did not show an intellectual or rational understanding of how to determine public policy. Luckily, the mayor decided to exercise his rarely-used veto, and that showed leadership.

There are three councilmembers who exemplify another important attribute – empathy. Councilmembers Briere, Warpehoski, and Teall are very good listeners. They listen to what their constituents are saying and they listen to advice from experts such as city staff members. Listening doesn’t mean pandering. Sometimes public servants have to educate their constituents, which doesn’t mean they ignore their concerns. It means they show leadership. Establishing the pedestrian safety task force is a good example.

When the council sets its priorities this year, look for the representatives who articulate specific objectives that are based on evidence of public need and considered representation of their constituents, show creative solutions to non-trivial problems, and are capable of verifiable results. That’s not too much to ask.

Coming Soon, To a Railroad Station Near You

This has turned out to be a week of trains and transit, so here is a guest column from David R. Busse,  a TV journalist, railroad fan, avid user of public transportation and registered independent voter. Dave is extremely knowledgeable about all things train, and notes another good reason for the Ann Arbor City Council to make sure federal money for a new train station doesn’t slip away because of short-sighted thinking.  — JL 

 

With all the focus in Washington on problems with the rollout of Obamacare, it might be a good time to remind people in the Midwest of an old phrase kicked around in the first term of the Obama administration.

Remember “stimulus money?”

One project that came to fruition with this and other federal funding will be arriving on Ann Arbor’s doorstep next year. It was not exactly “shovel ready” when proposed. Thanks to some unusual and very practical cooperation between transportation planners in California and several Midwestern states, the tired passenger cars on the Chicago-to-Detroit Amtrak corridor will be retired in favor of brand-new cars, designed specifically for “corridors” of passenger train growth in those states. California – a leader in such undertakings, if you can believe it – led the consortium of states in designing and bidding on the cars. This will be the third group Caltrans has procured for three different routes in the Golden State, and they are currently under construction at a railcar plant in Rochelle, Illinois. A big group of those cars will be dedicated to Chicago-Detroit service – the trains that serve Ann Arbor.Railcar

A big design improvement in these cars will be the use of platform-level automatic exit and entry doors. Your current Amtrak service uses cars with narrow entry way and manual doors, allowing passengers to use them only when a crew member is available to open the doors and assist passengers up the steep vestibule stairs. Regular Amtrak passengers know the drill and it can be excruciating on holidays and weekends, especially when snow and ice have clogged the stairs. Train pulls into station, crew member attempts to clear snow and ice from steps, passengers get off, embarking passengers line up next to one of the few open doors and wait…waiting for detraining passengers to get off, then wait for their fellow passengers to climb the narrow vestibule stairs, with luggage, kids, etc., and get on. Handicapped passengers find it even more of a tedious challenge. When the outgoing passengers board and the train starts moving again, the delay causes a late departure. What should have taken three or four minutes sometime takes ten or fifteen…or longer. Go thru that same scenario at six more stations westbound and you have trains arriving in Chicago substantially late, with mostly unhappy passengers.

Despite your state’s enlightened investment in rail infrastructure including state-of-the-art track and signaling systems for higher train speeds and increased track capacity, these long “dwell times” at stations – the time spent loading and unloading passengers enroute – is a huge impediment to faster schedules and consistent timekeeping. The new Amtrak cars you’ll see by this time next year will have wide doors with floors just a few inches higher than platform level. All doors on one side of the train will open for passenger loading and unloading at each stop, and passengers with hand luggage will be able to simultaneously get on or off the train. Handicapped access will be via easy low-tech ramps and their seats will be reserved close to the doorway – no steps to worry about. Station dwell times? Using the California experience as an example, expect average time savings of 70 percent…or more! Think of that if you use Amtrak’s Michigan corridor service over the upcoming holidays, and if you really want to have some fun, put a watch to the “dwell times” on your ride. Then compare after the new cars arrive.

If the California experience on the popular San Diego-Los Angeles-Santa Barbara run is any indication, the presence of these new cars will draw more travelers…especially in college towns, like Fullerton, where the Orange County city’s restored railway station serves Amtrak local and long-distance trains and Metrolink commuter trains as well as serving as the downtown transit hub. Along with the dramatic increase in train service frequency and numbers of passengers, a vibrant downtown of shops and restaurants exists just steps away. Same story in Solano Beach, Old Town San Diego and Oceanside, and a world-class station is under construction in Anaheim. I’ll bet Ann Arbor residents might visit any of these places and say, weather conditions notwithstanding, “we need to have something like this.”

The new cars are supposed to be coming late next year, and like it or not, they will highlight – in dramatic fashion – which cities along the route are ready for the new business.

What will it be like to arrive in Ann Arbor on one of the new trains next year and beyond? Will arriving passengers, getting off their WiFi-equipped trains see a modern facility meshing with other forms of public transport, e-kiosks connecting with hotels, car rental, ride-share, car-share, bike-share and whatever other new transport technology tends to crop up in cutting-edge college towns?

That is why the discussion of transit hubs and Amtrak stations among government leaders and citizens in Ann Arbor is so critical right now. You need a new train station, whether you like it or not, tied in to all forms of local commerce and transport, and unless the ball gets rolling right now, a train passenger’s first view of your vibrant city may be less than stellar. Does your city’s current station project an image that may encourage people to ditch their cars and try the train?

Federal and state taxpayers are providing Michigan with a modern fleet of cars and smoother track. Now the local cities along the Chicago-Detroit corridor need to get rolling on train stations to match.

David Busse
Diamond Bar, Calif.
DRBusse@roadrunner.com

 

Investing in Downtown

American cities like Ann Arbor share similar 20th Century stories:  People came to downtown stores to do their shopping and, in the first half of the century, downtowns were the retail and business centers. The second half of the century saw the decline of downtowns, with suburban sprawl and shopping malls. Southeast Michigan has a unique window on this because Oakland County’s  A. Alfred Taubman is a shopping mall pioneer and started his mall development company in 1950.

Politically, Ann Arbor’s downtown neighborhoods are like any others and do not have separate city council representation or governance. But downtown is different because of its importance to the city’s economy. When downtown started to wane, so did the city as a whole. The first inkling of this was in 1982. Downtown parking garages were crumbling and too expensive to fix with funds from general city taxes alone. Using a fairly new state-sanctioned mechanism, the city established a Downtown Development Authoritly that could concentrate taxes in the downtown. The city then turned the parking system over to the DDA so that parking garages could be maintained and parking could become more efficient.DDA Photos 016

As it became more and more evident that downtown is now the engine that drives the city’s economy, the DDA has shifted some of its focus from parking to infrastructure development that can encourage commercial and residential growth downtown. Parking is still an important tool for economic development because, for most businesses seeking to relocate downtown, the first question is about parking for employees or customers. The DDA has been able to use parking to encourage new business, run the system without losing money, and return $3.5 million per year to the city for its general fund.

Another source of funding for the DDA is Tax Increment Financing, or TIF. For a very detailed and accurate description of how TIF works, a good source is the Middle of the Left blog. Basically, I see TIF as a kind of titration. A very small percentage of tax monies – the increment or “delta” from increases to tax values from new buildings or renovations – are calculated by the city’s assessor and transferred to the DDA to be spent in the downtown, which also includes South University and a small dog leg down South Main Street. These taxes are titrated from the taxing authorities: Washtenaw County, the city of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor District Library, and Washtenaw Community College. Ann Arbor’s DDA does not use any public school taxes.

TIF money is an investment in downtown, the core of the city. Were it not for TIF, improvements to the downtown would be on a list with all other city projects. And, these downtown projects would have no political advocate because no ward encompasses all of the downtown. Sometimes progress can’t afford to be last on a list. One example is Zingerman’s Deli. Zingerman’s is arguably one of Ann Arbor’s most recognizable landmarks and brings thousands of shoppers to the Kerrytown commercial area.

Zingerman’s wanted to expand right around its Kerrytown footprint because it believes in character and believes in downtown Ann Arbor. Even so, the company got little help from the city or the city council, especially when the Historic District Commission got in the way with “protection” for a burnt-out but “historic” house on the property. Zingerman’s needed some matching funds in order to leverage state brownfield money that can be used to remedy not only environmental problems but also urban blight problems. The DDA stepped in and provided sidewalk improvements (you’ll see them if you go to the deli this week) as the needed local contribution to the state funding. Zingerman’s can stay in Kerrytown and thousands more customers can contribute to the local economy. It has been a worthwhile investment for the DDA and for the city.

One would think that investing in downtown would be a goal city leaders could embrace. Indeed, the council at its January 2013 retreat identified economic development as a priority. It did not, however, allocate any money to implementation of that priority. Shortly afterwards, some of the councilmembers sought to actually stop investing in downtown by capping the amount of TIF the DDA can capture. A resolution on the November 7 council agenda would do exactly that.

Councilmembers Kunselman and Kaliasapathy are leading the charge on this, but can’t explain how investing less money in the downtown can help the city. Councilmembers Lumm, Petersen and Anglin are similarly inclined to spend less money on the city’s main economic engine. They have somehow failed to pay attention to the wayfinding signs and are headed in the wrong direction.

 

The War on Art

The pumpkins are just about to get smashed and dumped into the recycling bins with the leaves, so we can now all start thinking about Thanksgiving and those Puritans. They left quite a legacy, particularly here in Ann Arbor, where the city council discussions have been about decency, bad words, and protection of women. These moral considerations forced the council to vote twice on the same nomination of the same person. They must have forgotten that the Puritans were against wasting time.

Puritans were also quite disturbed by graven images and so, it seems, are some of the councilmembers. Under the guise of fiscal responsibility, they have declared a war on art.

In 2007, the city council unanimously passed the Percent for Art Ordinance, a piece of legislation that the Commission on Art in Public Places (now called the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission or AAPAC) began developing around the turn of the century. Although I always like to point out how innovative our city is, this was not an innovation but had been successfully implemented in many cities, including Philadelphia, which started it all in 1959. New York, Toronto, Chicago, and Chapel Hill all have percent-for-art programs. Chapel Hill, a college town half our size, even has a Public and Cultural Arts Office.IMAG1228

Renovation of City Hall benefited from the art program when a completely uninteresting façade was replaced with an educational and functional stormwater installation and fountain designed by world-renowned artist Herbert Dreiseitl. It includes usable outdoor space and decorative plantings that change with every season.

The Puritans have spread a lot of misinformation about Percent for Art, so here is how it really works:  Whenever there is a capital improvement project, such as a bridge, water main, or street repaving, that project always has a 10% contingency fund to cover unexpected expenses. The Percent for Art is 1% of that contingency fund. It is not an extra amount added to a project, so it doesn’t make the project any more expensive. Each project is capped at $250,000 and none of the art funds come from the city’s General Fund, the money used to pay police and firefighters.

We don’t have a Percent for Art ordinance anymore. Misinformation works. First, 3rd Ward Councilmember Stephen Kunselman started talking about how the ordinance was illegal. He kept talking, even though he lacked support from anyone who was actually schooled in law. Then some misinformed people started to criticize the Dreiseitl sculpture, mistakenly saying that it was taking money away from police and fire services, and xenophobically saying that Dreiseitl was not from Michigan or even from America.

The fact that some people don’t “like” the Dreiseitl art or any of the other public art is beside the point. Public art is not there to lull people SUB-CZECH-articleInlineinto serenity with gentle colors and Norman Rockwell images of kids in barber chairs. It is meant to make you think and react, whether you “like” it or not. This concept might be best expressed by Czech sculptor David Cerny, whose installation in the Vltava River points towards the Prague Castle.

Art is part of culture and culture is what makes a city unique. If Ann Arbor had a cadre of gazillionnaires, the way Grand Rapids does, we could count on private funding for large, outdoor art installations. We do have the University of Michigan, and more collaboration between the U and the city could produce some contributions to public art, but that has not yet been a priority for either institution.

Politics is hard and you have to choose your battles. Art is not very popular when times are tough, so the council chose to throw art under the bus, which took the form of a ballot proposal that would fund art with a millage – coming out of citizens’ pockets – rather than a percent of capital projects. The council did not consult the arts community before proposing this millage and there was little time to mount a campaign in support. It doesn’t take much to mount a campaign against spending your money, so, not too surprisingly, recession-strapped voters last year voted against taxing themselves for art.

This vote gave the council an easy, but not necessarily correct, way to say that “the people” don’t want money spent on art. This past summer they got rid of Percent for Art completely, and replaced it with an ordinance that says, essentially, that art might happen in an appropriate project if someone adds it into the project cost and then gets tied to some railroad track until the council says the art is worth it. The possibility of art being included in any new city project is slim.

Councilmember Jane Lumm, from Ward 2, has declared herself to be against public art in any circumstance. She and 1st Ward Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy proposed gutting what was left of the public art fund, but their proposal was defeated. AAPAC still has about $800,000 from the old Percent for Art to spend on art projects, and they are giving thanks for that.